Lamentation

Lamentation is Ken Scholes first novel with a strong fantasy bent set in a post-apocalyptic world.  Scholes uses a rotating viewpoint among the main cast, which keeps the pace of the novel moving and adds insight to each character’s personality. The characters are of varying interest; however, the leads generally hold up well over the course of the novel. This is important as the characters are fundamental to drive the novel forward much more so than the action, which is often depicted via second hand accounts.

The novel is part of a five book arc and, in as much as it is discernible from the opening work, follows a well worn fantasy trope of an ancient, displaced evil returning to conquer its former home. Whether this turns out to be the true thrust of the over-arching storyline for the planned quintet, will hinge upon factors that are almost impossible to know after reading Lamentation.

The sectionalized plot for this novel is rather mundane. An ancient magic is unleashed upon a city wiping it from the map. Neighboring nation-states proceed to wage a war in order to avenge the wrong doing.  The initial perpetrator turns out to be a decoy guided by the hand of another.  By the end of the novel, allegiances have shifted and the decoy is killed to sate the desire for punishment among those remaining.

The plot is surprisingly unimportant to a review of this novel. Indeed, the plot serves almost exclusively as a vehicle for the characters within it. The foppish king of a gypsy clan, Rudolfo, is the primary protagonist and the one that readers are intended to enjoy the most. Rudolfo is guided by a decisive moral character and often noted for knowing what is right and doing it regardless of the difficulty of the task. He makes for a charming and convincing moral compass.

Rudolfo’s future wife, Jin Li Tam, is an admirable female character. Intelligent, eminently competent and self assured, she plays a crucial role in her father’s network of spies, which is entirely composed of his children. In the first novel, Jin Li’s role in the story is decidedly secondary in nature. She offers insight into Rudolfo’s private life, a better understanding of her father and a connection to Isaak, a sentient, mechanical man.  She serves as a fulcrum for other’s actions but is rarely a decisive actor in her own accord.

The connection to her father, Vlad Li Tam, of whom we only catch glimpses, is fundamental to the story. Vlad Li Tam has sent his children out to the world, and he was a prolific father, to act as a spy network. Operator of the primary banking system for the known world, Vlad is able to inject himself in every relevant political, cultural and economic event through the virtue of his family’s wealth and children. The status and knowledge this provides him allows him to be a kind of long term, near-omniscient actor of outsized proportions.

The most compelling character in this novel was the former head of the Androfrancines, a monastic order devoted to the pursuit and restrained use of knowledge from pre-apocalyptic eras, named Petronus. He is wily and compelling in all the manners that an influential spiritual leader should be. His ability to deftly maneuver through potentially volatile political situations was captivating.  In the midst of large armies and overt displays of power, Petronus has a unique subtlety and deftness in his actions that nearly every other character lacks.

The least compelling character has to be considered Neb. Mute for a significant portion of the book he seems out of place throughout the novel, never quite adding to the plot in a significant way and never becoming an interesting character in his own right. Neb’s youth is perhaps his undoing as a character when he is routinely given considerable responsibility for the lease plausible of reasons. His function in the first novel is as a witness rather than a doer.

All of this discussion, of course, ignores the true center of the book. He, if you can refer to him as a “he”, is Isaak who is the namesake for Scholes’ quintet The Psalms of Isaak of which this book is the first. Isaak is a sentient machine brought to a fuller understanding of his own sentience through the devastating magic that destroys a city at the novel’s opening. The exploration of Isaak’s feelings, sense of responsibility for his actions and desire for restitution is an undercurrent that reflects onto all of those around him.  His emotional responses are decidedly human in nature and Scholes use of him as a foil to evoke the strengths and weaknesses in others is crucial to the novel.

It says something about Scholes, perhaps, that the character which best emotes is the one which should be expected to emote the least. Scholes does impressive work with Isaak, referred to as a mechoservitor in the novel, and Isaak has the most complete characterization withinLamentation in spite of not having any of the novel written from his viewpoint.

The prose is surprisingly strong throughout the book. Scholes has an elegant and fluid wording that makes for some very poignant emotional scenes. The closing paragraphs as the viewpoint shifts are often reflective in nature for each character and excellently worded. They capture the feeling of the moment and consistently remind the reader of the thrust of what the previous few pages had intended to convey.

The most problematic part of the novel is the machinations of Vlad Li Tam. Through careful planning and years of small moves in the known world, Vlad has guided events almost single handedly to this crucial climax.  This mastermind or puppet master aspect to the novel cheapens the motives and actions of every other character in the book. Equally problematic is the late plot twist indicating that Vlad had been outmaneuvered by another puppet master completely unbeknownst to him.

This external actor as guiding hand is echoed in the Scholes’ style of telling the story.  For a book rife with battles and death, very little of it is actually witnessed. Characters often recount it at later points or discuss it in a surprisingly detached manner. In some ways, this further removes the reader from the motives and actions that Rudolfo, for instance, takes in the heat of battle. Instead his reflections and post-event description are the only retelling of critical moments that take place.

On balance, it’s a satisfying opening novel. Scholes is clearly setting up a larger narrative and while that weakens the importance of early action in this novel, it allows the characters to shine through. A few characters are critical to the enjoyability of the book, coupled with the simple, superior wordsmithing, making for a well paced read of themes that have been tread in other works of fiction.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Lamentation by Ken Scholes

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